Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: The charter schools—and bike lanes—will remain
By Michael Petrilli
It’s understandable that education reformers have already gone out of their way to assert that Michelle Rhee’s reforms weren’t determinative in Adrian Fenty’s failed mayoral re-election bid. Most of us want other mayors (and legislators, and governors, and presidents) to follow the Fenty/Rhee script closely, but they surely won’t if they believe that doing so would mean political suicide.
And let’s be clear: There’s plenty of evidence that Fenty’s loss had more to do with his “leadership style” than his policies. He didn’t reach out enough and he allowed himself to be painted as a “part-time” mayor who liked training for triathlons more than doing the work of meeting with constituents. Oh, and he was said to be not “black enough”—putting the interests of affluent white residents above those of poor and working-class blacks (in a majority-black city that is gentrifying rapidly).
But he was a major-league reformer on multiple fronts, starting with education. And let’s face it: The toughest of tough-minded reforms just aren’t all that popular with the public. While people overwhelmingly support vague notions of “accountability,” they have mixed feelings about accountability in action. Consider the latest Education Next poll. It asked respondents: “If a teacher has been performing poorly for several years, what action should be taken by those in charge?”Among the general public, 48 percent said “Provide the teacher with additional training and counseling,” versus 45 percent who said “Fire the teacher.” (Public school parents gave virtually identical answers.) We also asked respondents the same question about poorly-performing postal workers and police officers, and the results were pretty much the same. (Less than half of those polled wanted the worker fired.)
The one outlier group was comprised of African Americans, who were sharply opposed to firing teachers (only a quarter supported that course of action, versus three-quarters who wanted additional training). So it’s not hard to imagine the black community in D.C. coming to oppose Rhee and Fenty’s aggressive moves to terminate ineffective teachers—many of whom were and are black.
What’s interesting, though, is how the rise of charter schools hasn’t sparked the same push-back from the black community, even though far more DCPS teachers have lost their jobs to charters than to Rhee’s reforms. Of course, this type of job loss isn’t so visible; it’s stealthy. Enrollment declines, schools close, and new teachers don’t get hired. That’s a much different dynamic than learning that your neighbor was given a pink slip by “that Korean lady” who runs the school system.
So what’s next for D.C.? Surely Rhee is leaving, one way or another. Even if Vince Gray invited her to stay—exceedingly unlikely—it’s hard to imagine her sticking around to work for a man who has opposed many of her policies and who won his race with the strong backing of the teacher unions. And as Rick Hess pointed out a week ago, if Rhee leaves, the system will, over time, revert back to the same old-same old. No one is going to stay focused on rooting out incompetence and mediocrity without support from the top. Here’s hoping I’m wrong, but I’m not optimistic.
What will remain standing are the District’s charter schools, which will likely continue to gain market share and will probably serve a majority of D.C. students within a few years. While Washington would be better served with a strong public school system and a healthy charter environment, it’s better off with its charter schools than without. How ironic that charter schools will now provide the education “stability” in this city. (Keep in mind that, if Rhee leaves in January after three and a half years, she still will have been the longest-serving D.C. chancellor of the last two decades.)
Oh, and then there are the bike lanes, which Fenty installed and his opponents used to paint him as “too white.” I use them twice a day. And while the new mayor will likely roll back Fenty’s school reforms, the bike lanes will remain. Some things are easier to undo than others.
This piece originally appeared on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. You can subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed here.
Opinion: You'll be sorely missed, Mike Castle
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Besides almost certainly forfeiting a Senate seat that the GOP could have taken in November, Delaware’s Republican primary voters yesterday made a colossal mistake when it comes to education policy. Mike Castle is, and for two decades has been, one of American education’s wisest, sagest, and bravest reformers.
I first came to know him in 1989 when, as governor of Delaware—and already a notable education change-agent there—he served as the first GOP governor on the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which I then had the privilege of chairing. He came to Congress in January 1993 and my admiration for him has never flagged. He’s a workhorse, not a showhorse, the kind of pragmatist who actually likes to get things done; and he is capable of reaching across the aisle for that purpose. His fingerprints are on every significant piece of federal education legislation of the past eighteen years. (And that’s not all he’s done in Congress.) He has chaired or served as ranking minority member of the main K-12 subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee for as long as I can remember, working with speakers from Newt Gingrich to Nancy Pelosi, with committee chairs from Bill Goodling to George Miller, and with presidents from Bill Clinton through George Bush II to Barack Obama.
There have been one or two issues (e.g., Head Start reform) where I might have held out for more changes than Castle eventually settled for, but, as noted above, he’s a realist who would rather light one candle than curse the darkness. (I’m sometimes guilty of the latter.) He learns from experience. He adapts to changing national needs and priorities (see, for example, his column on STEM education). And he has never failed to put the interests of kids ahead of those of adults.
At seventy-one, he could retire but I hope he doesn’t. He’d be a superb university president, foundation chief, even U.S. secretary of education (if the crazies don’t also wreck the GOP’s chances of replacing Obama in 2012). Delaware and America have been well and honorably served and improved by his distinguished public-service career. Only a party with a death-wish would end it in this fashion.
This piece originally appeared on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. You can subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed here.
Opinion: "A" for effort shouldn't count
By Erich Martel
In the District of Columbia Public Schools, where I teach social studies, “credit recovery” (CR) is a program of after-school courses for high school students who have failed the same classes during the regular school day. CR enables these pupils to receive credit towards graduation; but the “recovery” courses have distinctly lower standards than the standard kind. As a result, any increase in graduation numbers achieved through this means may well yield a false impression of improved student learning.
The ideas behind credit recovery are nothing new; for decades school systems have offered summer and night programs where students can pass courses while—often—doing less work. Credit recovery is simply the latest incarnation of this approach. And it’s not just taking hold in the nation’s capital; CR programs are being launched all around the country and enrollment is booming. But these efforts haven’t been scrutinized for evidence that students are actually meeting the same standards that “regular” courses would demand of them.
In many public school systems, including DCPS, students who fail key high-school courses such as Algebra I or English 2 are scheduled into double periods to give them additional time to master challenging subject matter. Credit recovery does the opposite; it creates separate credit bearing courses, but with 25 to 40 percent fewer scheduled classroom hours. A typical two-semester course (1.0 Carnegie unit) offered during the regular school day in most DCPS high schools is scheduled for 120 to 135 seat hours. In credit recovery, meanwhile, the total number of teacher-student contact hours is eighty-two to ninety-two hours. (Contact hours are important, especially given that most of the students enrolled in CR courses had deficiencies in prerequisite knowledge from the get-go. For these students, expanded—not constricted—classroom time is critical for success.) Plus, CR courses come with the additional restriction that“there will be no traditional ‘homework’ assigned in Credit Recovery. All assignments will be completed during class time.” (Emphasis mine.)
In her October 28, 2008 “Chancellors’ Notes,” DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee described the expansion of CR from the previous year’s trial run of 200 students in seven high schools to “over 1,400 students…[in] all 16 high schools.” Enrollment was open to all students, grades 9 through 12, including many with no lost credits requiring “recovery.” By the end of that school year, easily more than twice the chancellor’s original estimate of 1,400 students had enrolled in CR. (The actual number of students who received credits under these conditions has not been reported and is difficult to estimate, since many CR teachers reported drop-out rates of more than 50 percent.)
Moreover, many CR class teachers were assigned courses they were not certified to teach. During the past two school years, students enrolled in different subjects were assigned to one teacher and grouped in a single classroom. In some cases, non-instructional staff members, such as counselors, were assigned to “teach” CR classes. The clear expectation of school officials responsible for these assignments was that students would spend most of their time completing work sheets with little active teacher instruction.
Many students were simultaneously enrolled in two courses, even though one is the pre-requisite for the other, as in math, Spanish, and French. Some students, mainly ELL/ESOL, were enrolled in as many as three English courses at the same time. CR teachers reported a range of direct and indirect pressure by administrators to pass students enrolled in these courses despite failing grades, extensive absences, and late enrollment.
In my experience, CR as practiced in DCPS leads to a decline in actual student learning, teacher morale, and institutional integrity. It certainly mitigates against high standards. When some of our most academically challenged students are offered shortcuts that allow them to receive course credits for only partial content mastery, knowledge and the work ethic on which it is founded are devalued. Like ancient gilded lead coins, each recipient of CR credits is deceived with an inflated sense of achievement, which will burst the moment he or she learns that full college acceptance is conditional upon completion of remedial, non-credit courses. This is, of course, completely consistent with the lamentable pattern of giving kids diplomas that purport to attest to achievement and readiness but actually do nothing of the sort—which is arguably the origin of standards-based reform and external accountability in U.S. education going back to the flurry of high school graduation tests that started in the 1970s.
Simply put, credit recovery, in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, makes a mockery of local and national efforts to improve our country’s knowledge base.
Erich Martel is a social studies teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools and serves on the Executive Board of the Washington Teachers Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
News Analysis: Say yes to the test
Of all the emotions evoked by the word “test,” pleasurable curiosity is probably not at the top of your list. That’s because you live in America, where testing is condemned for stifling individuality, creativity, and real content knowledge. Move half way around the globe, however, and your perspective would change. That’s what happened to NYT correspondent Elisabeth Rosenthal’s children, who, after attending elementary school in China, where they were regularly tested, found their new no-grades and no-tests progressive (presumably private) American school in New York City unsettling. Or as Rosenthal’s daughter asked after a month sans tests, “How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” (Both children are now at a Big Apple specialized public high school where they relish the feedback of frequent testing—and a significant portion of their classmates are Asian.) UNC-Chapel Hill professor Gregory Cizek takes it a step further: “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he explains. Yes, he acknowledges, tests must be age appropriate—three-year-olds can’t spend hours filling in bubbles—and the Chinese system, where university entrance rests on one make-it-or-break-it exam, is a bit extreme. But there is a happy medium, where tests are frequent and helpful, as the Rosenthal kids will attest.
New Analysis: The SAT flatlines
Some things change, and then there is the SAT, where for the umpteenth year in a row, scores are flat. Average scores for the class of 2010 were 501 in critical reading, 516 in math, and 492 in writing. But the real story here has to do with curriculum. Students who benefit from a core curriculum—defined as at least four years of English, and three each of math, natural science, and history—score significantly higher than those who don’t: roughly fifty points in reading, math, and writing. This boost was only topped by one other: students in honors or AP level classes, which tended to see a higher scores on all three tests even from taking unrelated advanced classes. For example, students who were or had taken AP/honors in the natural sciences scored sixty-seven points higher than average in critical reading. But the point is the same: Skills like reading are best taught—or even only can be taught—in the context of high-quality rigorous content.
Review: School Districts’ Perspectives on the Economic Stimulus Package: School Improvement Grants Present Uncertainty and Opportunity
By Daniela Fairchild
Way back in the spring, the federal government put its faith (and $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants) behind four “turnaround models” for the worst-performing schools. The idea, of course, is that with the right interventions, even the most troubled schools can be reborn as good ones. But what if they don’t know how—or even what the models are? That’s the unsettling reality, according to this nationally representative survey of school districts. Over one-third of them were unfamiliar with at least one of the four “endorsed” turnaround models, while fewer than 12 percent had previously implemented even one of those intervention strategies. CEP also looked at the efficacy of past turnaround efforts and—unsurprisingly—found mixed results. But the most successful model is perhaps not what you’d expect: Of the four approaches, only the transformation model, which replaces the principal and provides teachers with increased support, elicited positive results. (Note, however, that this model was undertaken by a scant 6 percent of districts.) But, say the authors, we can’t write off these turnaround models just yet, since the survey was conducted before much of the SIG money reached districts, and before districts began concentrating their efforts on the four turnaround strategies. That a significant portion of districts are woefully undereducated on the SIG models is certainly not promising for their success (nevermind their historic lack of courage to make radical changes). But we’ll have to wait for CEP’s second survey, slated for winter 2010-2011, to find out. We wait, breath duly bated and suspense elevated.
Review: The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study Final Report: The Impact of Supplemental Literacy Courses for Struggling Ninth-Grade Readers
By Amber M. Winkler
This whopping report asks a single, simple question: Can a supplemental reading class boost achievement for struggling adolescent readers? The answer? Yes, temporarily. Analysts randomly assigned roughly 5,600 students from thirty-four high schools to a control or a treatment group, which would use one of two supplemental reading programs (Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literary or Xtreme Reading), also known as “Enhanced Reading Opportunities” (ERO). Each of the EROs supplanted an elective course, which meant it took place in addition to the student’s regular English class, during the school day (not after school), and either every day for forty-five minutes or every other day for ninety minutes (for a total of 3.75 hours a week). With this intense intervention, students moved, over the course of ninth-grade, from the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth percentile nationally in reading comprehension. (That sounds minor but most reading interventions, especially when tested with the gold-standard methods employed here, have zero effect, so even a two percentile shift is worth noting—though reading in the twenty-fifth percentile is nothing to celebrate.) The ERO program also positively impacted students’ GPAs, the rate at which they earned course credits, and their scores on standardized English and math tests. But when the intervention stopped, so did the students’ reading progress. (In fact, students reverted back to their original scores and GPA levels.) We find, once again, that even a heavy but short-lived dose of intense remediation for struggling readers is no long-term solution to improving adolescent reading—no matter how much money is thrown at the initiative. (In this case, the per-student price tag was about $2,000 per kid.) Though the study is refreshing for its focus on improving high school reading performance (and pertinent in light of ED’s new Striving Readers program), in the end, the results leave much to be desired.
Review: Levers for Change: Pathways for State-to-District Assistance in Underperforming School Districts
By Amanda Olberg
Over the last thirty years, states have taken on an increasingly large role in district (and subsequently school) interventions (most recently through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the like). But, according to this CAP paper, this may or may not be such a good idea. That’s because, if history is any guide, state-to-district interventions have repeatedly failed. The main problem, the author explains, is that states tend to compartmentalize their efforts—addressing the financial or organizational aspect of a district, for example, but ignoring the politics. Or pushing districts to fix schools’ achievement, while ignoring gaping budget holes. But where history shows repeated failure, it also teaches lessons for the future. First, states need to address all aspects of an intervention—organizational, political, educational—at once. Second, states need to do all of those things better, by establishing mechanisms for mid-course corrections (organizational), for example, and creating an effective communications strategy (political). For each lever, CAP provides a series of “litmus questions” for a state to find and examine its weaknesses and fix them. The premise of this paper may seem obvious, but with states taking increasingly larger roles in district reform (putting to use the Common Core standards, guiding SIG efforts, etc.), state-to-district interventions need now, more than ever, to be done well. And, this paper offers a blueprint.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Reat dons a meat dress
Mike and Rick get serious about the D.C. and DE elections, and then dissect school suspension rates. Amber tackles high school reading programs and Rate that Reform transforms into a 3-D optical illusion.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
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Flypaper's Finest: Quality must trump quantity when it comes to new charter schools
By Terry Ryan and Kathryn Mullen Upton
With more than 300 charter schools serving nearly 100,000 children, Ohio is known for its significant school choice market. Two of its cities (Dayton and Youngstown) are in the top ten cities nationally in terms of charter-school market share. This week the Columbus Dispatch reported that 40 new charters are opening this year, twice the average number that opened their doors at the outset of previous school years...
Flypaper's Finest: Kafka, the sequel
By Peter Meyer
I knew as soon as we had finished saying the Pledge that it could be an interesting school board meeting: there were only four members present, which (because we were a 7-member board) meant that we had to have unanimous consent to pass any resolution, including, as we would soon learn, convening a meeting. A motion to accept the agenda was made and seconded. I asked that two items be added to “Old Business,” usually a rather routine request. Not tonight...
Briefly Noted: Sundays with the Rev. Al Sharpton
- If you are wondering what to do while awaiting the start of the Sunday football game, the Reverend Al Sharpton is here to help you. Seems he will be hosting an education news roundtable show on Sunday mornings starting September 26, 2100. Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Newt Gingrich are already slated to appear on the show. They’re fine. He’s not.
- Two D.C. City Council members (both supporters of Vincent Gray) have begun to press Gray and Michelle Rhee to negotiate an “extended transition” that would keep Rhee in office through the 2011-2012 school year. That might just delay the inevitable. But in this case, delay might be a plus.
- Along with textiles and customer service support, America is now outsourcing higher education to Asia. Through a partnership with the National University of Singapore, Yale is offering students a Western “liberal arts” education without flying halfway around the world. (NYU is doing the same thing too.)
Announcement: Wanted: Money whiz
Us: a think tank at the forefront of education reform. You: An energetic, organized, and creative person with strong investing and accounting skills, who welcomes the challenge of strategic budgeting for a complex, multi-million-dollar nonprofit. If this sounds like your kind of relationship, you might be perfect as Fordham’s new Finance Director.
Announcement: Waltz on over to Walton
The Walton Foundation seeks an education program officer. This position is one of a ten-person team that oversees grantees under the Foundation’s Systemic K-12 Education Reform Focus Area. The ideal candidate should have a demonstrated appreciation for parental choice, superior interpersonal and communication skills, a respectful but analytical approach to the work of grantees, and a proven ability to work effectively as part of a team. Read more about the position and how to apply here.
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The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Remmert Dekker, Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Kyle Kennedy, Jamie Davies O'Leary, Eric Osberg, Stafford Palmieri, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at email@example.com. You are welcome to forward Gadfly to others, and from our website you can also email individual articles. Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary and secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.) The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.
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